If you ask people if they’ve been to Saba Island (pronounced Say-ba), in the Dutch Caribbean, a municipality of the Netherlands, chances are you’ll be met with a blank stare. “Is it in Indonesia?” one friend asked. “Are you making it up?” inquired another.
I only learned about the tiny speck of a former volcano a few weeks before my visit. And that’s exactly why I wanted to go. Who wants to go where everyone’s been?
After four lovely days, I discovered that while Saba’s footprint is a mere five square miles, what it lacks in size it more than makes up in pristine nature, a relaxed small-town vibe, and super-friendly locals.
If you’ve never considered the Island of Saba for a holiday, I’ve listed a few reasons why you might want to rethink your plans.
Like other Caribbean islands, Saba is endowed with cobalt blue water, soaring palm trees, and exotic terrain, what it’s not is slick and manicured to an inch of its life. Locals call it the “Unspoiled Queen of the Caribbean,” and from a nature perspective, it’s a well-earned moniker. Visually the public areas are a little frayed around the edges, spots are overgrown, buildings battered by hurricanes need a coat of paint. It’s what I imagine St. Martin or Jamaica looked like 20 – 30 years ago before commercialism reigned supreme.
Old-School Small-Town Vibe
Saba’s four small villages (Hell’s Gate, Windwardside, St. John, and The Bottom) are wedged between the few valleys the volcano affords. Red-roofed homes scale the mountainsides taking advantage of every ledge and plateau on which to perch.
Each village has its own personality and in some instances dialects, yet what they share is a refreshingly slow pace, a laid-back charm, and a “Mi Casa et Su Casa” warmth. Locals smile and said hello, gladly offering directions, recommended places to go and things to do with genuine enthusiasm. Living in New York City, the contrast is sadly remarkable.
Taxi driver Donna Lockhart, who’s been on the job for 14 years, said the community’s kindness was one of the main reasons she moved to Saba Island two decades ago. “It’s the only place that I know of that I’ve ever driven, that people will meet head-on [on the villages’ narrow streets], and both start to reverse to let the other one go.”
Saba’s generosity of spirit is underscored by a dearth of crime. Homes are left unlocked, cars sport keys in the ignition, and late-night strolls are only a walk in the dark.
This enviable tranquility is born of a shared heritage and pure practicality. A good portion of the population is a web of distant familial ties knotted over centuries. Everyone knows one another, and with a robust network of chatter, secrets don’t last long. Add the fact that making it off the Island without being caught is unlikely, you have the perfect storm of deterrents to illegal shenanigans.
Few People Know Saba Island Exists
Saba’s relative anonymity means it remains unscathed by hordes of tourists. The kind who visit a tropical paradise then over time love it to death.
Large cruise ships belching passengers ashore are blissfully absent as are chain anything. If you crave a Starbucks or a Big Mac, you’re out of luck. Thankfully.
It’s not lost on me that I am praising a destination for its obscurity while simultaneously drawing attention to it. But Saba’s predominantly vertical geography naturally discourages major growth in tourism.
The tiny Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (boasting the world’s shortest commercial runway – more on that later) only accommodates helicopters and small passenger planes. A once-a-day 90-minute Ferry from St. Maarten (a mere 30 miles away) principally services day-trippers.
In short, while there is wiggle room for a few additional accommodations and tourism-based businesses, the island doesn’t have the real estate for the necessary infrastructure needed to sustain a heavy influx of fans.
There’s a Universe of Biodiversity
“There are few places in the Caribbean with Saba’s range of biodiversity,” said “Crocodile James Johnson,” a 67 years-young nature guide and trail manager who grew up on Saba and can trace his lineage back to the 1600s. “For its size, it’s the most biodiverse island in the world.”
There are 700 species of plants, an indigenous black iguana, and 60 species of birds, including 10% of the red-billed tropicbird population. It’s also blessed with multiple ecosystems: coral reefs and lava flows, as well as a rainforest and Elfin (Cloud) forest atop the 2800 foot Mount Scenery, the highest point in the Dutch Kingdom.
The proximity of all this diversity made it easy for me to hike the rainforest in the morning, and an hour later, I scrambled over lava flows at low tide in search of tidal pools.
in the 60s and early 70s, tourism became possible after the completion of the airport and harbor. Scuba divers were the first to arrive and fall in love with Saba’s world-class water.
The region boasts one of the healthiest oceans in the world with spectacular pinnacles, stunning seamounts, drop-offs, and walls, along with thriving coral reefs, and a mindboggling variety of fish.
Credit goes to the sustainability-minded residents. They chose to establish a National Marine Park circling the Island in 1987 BEFORE any damage was done.
Boats are limited, and it’s illegal for travelers to disturb the coral reefs. Visitors must dive with local outfitters such as Sea Saba, a veteran dive shop in Windwardside, who knows the sites intimately.
According to Kai Wulf, Director of Parks, the best time for snorkeling is during hurricane season around late August, early September. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but he swears between storms the frequently turbulent water is at its calmest. Granted, if there’s bad weather, you’re out of luck.
Ironically, the snorkeling around Saba is so-so at best. Strong swells keep snorkelers confined to areas where marine life is relatively scarce.
It Has Excellent Hiking Trails
The hiking on Saba is as striking as the diving. Weaving through rainforest, cloud forest, and coastal terrain are 23 self-guided hiking trails that range in difficulty from moderate to extreme. Average times one-way run the gamut from 10 minutes to four hours.
The trek to the summit of Mount Scenery is the most popular trek, frequented by locals and day-trippers alike. To reach the peak at 2,800 feet requires climbing 1064 stairs. At the top, a captivating cloud forest will be your reward replete with 200-year-old mahogany trees, and breathtaking views.
During your journey, you’ll ascend through a dense rainforest rich with palm trees with leafs the size of a 12-year-old. There are orchids and dangling vines, and a zillion different species of plants I couldn’t begin to list.
Many of the paths are historic, dating back hundreds of years when settlers carried everything by hand or on donkeys. How I don’t know, but I’ve heard tales about pianos and whole homes dismantled and moved to new locations this way. Incredible.
To acquaint yourself with the options, stop by the Trail Shop at the foot of the mountain in Windwardside. There you’ll find maps and up-to-the-moment information on the status of the trails.
Alert the trail shop where you plan to hike. If there’s an emergency, the staff needs to know where to look for you. Please don’t walk alone. If you are hurt it could be hours before help arrives.
I highly recommend going on at least one hike with “Crocodile James.” He’s a real character. He’ll regale you with island stories and legends and facts about flora and fauna. Don’t fret if you can’t always understand him, he speaks incredibly fast and has an accent that’s a mashup of Scottish, Irish, and French, with some Caribbean thrown in for good measure.
My friend, Sherry Ott, and I went with James on the Sandy Cruz trail. A route with its fair share of inclines and switchbacks in the heart of the rainforest. The sun was blazing and it was an ideal shady hike. About halfway through, the trees part revealing stunning views of St. Maarten and other islands beyond.
If you like history in addition to beautiful views, hike up to Mary’s Point. It’s a combo of stairs and dirt trail, and always going up, which makes it a challenge but worth it. At the top, you’ll find old settlement ruins from the 1600s. Not a lot, but there are a few foundations and walls, a cistern, and a couple of graves.
James is a direct descendant of the people who lived there, and if you go with him, he’ll provide some intriguing context.
It’s Very Easy to Get Around
The majority of accommodations, restaurants, and travel-related businesses are based in Windwardside and within walking distance.
All four villages are connected by one main road, a narrow thoroughfare named The Road. (Imaginative names are not the Saban’s forte.)
There are no traffic lights, no stop signs, and it’s laden with steep inclines and multiple hairpin turns. Not to mention, portions of the pavement are only wide enough for a single car. If you enjoy rollercoasters, you’ll get a kick out of The Road.
When you arrive, you’ll get a taste of it right off the bat. From Juancho E. Yrausquin at sea level to Windwardside at 1312 feet, there are 23 uphill curves alone.
When it comes to excursions, the outfitters usually handle transport. Taxis are the best and most economical way to get around. Drivers like Donna Lockhart are available by phone, by appointment, and if you’re in any commercial business, ask the staff to call one for you.
Rental cars are available, but, seriously, use the taxis. Parking is an issue, and with 45-degree inclines, you’ll be happier sitting shotgun enjoying the view than sitting behind the wheel.
If that doesn’t sell you, how about drivers like Donna are just more fun. She has a wealth of information to share plus real-time reports on local happenings.
There’s Great Food
I admit, I didn’t expect much food-wise but I was very pleasantly surprised.
Windwardside has the lion’s share of restaurants and bars with varying menus and cuisines.
Bizzy B. Bakery is a local favorite. Get up early, and you’ll find locals enjoying their morning coffee and muffin before work at the tables outside. I had a yummy egg-salad sandwich there when I needed a quick and delish bite to eat.
One evening, I had fresh grilled Saban lobster, (a.k.a Spiny lobster without the large front claws and is a tad less sweet the Maine variety.) It was so good, I still think about it now.
At night, on the patio, the Tipsy Goat Bar is a must for cocktails with one of the best sunset views around.
A couple of minutes walk from Juliana’s is Brigadoon, inside this former Saban cottage, it’s charming, romantic, and lit by candlelight. I recommend the Shrimp Brigadoon with scallops, green olives, and asparagus.
For something extra special, dinner at the Queen’s Garden Resort and Spa is worth splurging on. The 12 – suite hotel is etched into the mountainside poised above The Bottom, and the only 5-star accommodation on the Island.
Ask for the Bird’s Nest table, perched in a 110-year-old mango tree. The view of the village to the sea is gorgeous.
Swinging Doors Bar is the local haunt for after-dinner fun and BBQ on Tuesday and Sunday nights. I didn’t go due to lack of time, but everyone I talked to said it was a great place to hang out.
There’s More to do than Diving and Hiking on Saba Island
While nature is Saba’s sweet spot, there are other things to do if you’re in the mood for something different.
Taxi Driver Donna, as well as other drivers, offer island tours. She’ll take you through the villages, point out all the key landmarks and provide some historical context. It’s a great way to get your bearings when you first arrive. Plus, you’ll have a chance to experience The Road. It was constructed by hand with picks and wheelbarrows beginning in 1943, it took 15-years to complete.
Another location for a beautiful sunset is Wells Bay. Towering cliffs and dramatic coastline are backdrops to a stunning end to the day.
If you’re feeling crafty, Jobean of Jobean Glass Art, an accomplished artist, offers half and full-day workshops making beads with hot glass. Jobean is a spirited host and an enthusiastic teacher who makes sure her guests get the most out of their visit.
I wasn’t sure it would be my cup of tea, (I’m not much for jewelry), but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The class was educational, challenging and fun, with the bonus of instant gratification. I wear my beads all the time.
A day at the Frangipani Spa makes it easy to pamper yourself. Or if you prefer retail therapy you’ll find Jobean’s work as well as creations by a slew of other talented local artists at Kakona. The word means “trinkets of value and objects of worth” in the Ciboney language, the aboriginal people who lived on Saba over 3,000 years ago.
You’ll want to give yourself plenty of time to roam the shop. You’ll find hand-loomed shawls, jewelry, body products made from essential oils found in native plants, colorful paintings of nature and underwater scenes, and Saba Spice, a tasty indigenous 150-proof rum you won’t find anywhere else.
Every Wednesday, Tropic’s Cafe hosts dinner and a movie, a virtual hike narrated by Tom van’t Hoff, an environmentalist and founder of the Saba Conservation Foundation. The film takes you on a guided ecological tour of the island.
On Mondays, Sea Saba presents a slide show featuring the underwater universe off Saba’s shores.
Celebrate Carnival the last week in July. The “Sea and Learn” Festival takes place in October, a community effort to teach visitors and residence about ocean conservation. Scientists, naturalists, and educators from around the world design exhibitions, give presentations and produce shows about life under the waves of the Marine Park.
In December, Saba Days is a multi-day festival with games, dancing, sports, cultural activities, and week-long barbecues.
How to Get to Saba Island
Getting to Saba Island is sort of a “thing.” This is less of a reason to visit as it is a heads up. To get to Saba you need to go through St. Maarten. Google the flight from St. Maarten to Saba and you’ll see a slew of articles waxing poetic about Juancho E. Yrausquin having, at 1300 feet, the shortest commercial runway in the world.
In my opinion, airplane geeks and nervous nellies overdramatize the landing. If they tried to land a 747 on that tiny strip, I’d understand the fuss, but it’s a small 19-seater prop plane and the pilots have special training.
There’s a tight bank to the left on the approach, but it was more fun than scary. When the pilot touched down, the pilot engaged the reverse thrusters and we slowed down immediately. We only used half the runway before turning toward the gate. No big deal.
A Few Saba Tips
If you’re one of those people who dream of sipping umbrella drinks while sunning on a white sandy beach, you’re out of luck. Saba doesn’t have one. But trust me, with all it has to offer nobody is complaining.
Same for clubbing. You won’t find it. Think laid back, balmy nights, relaxation.
If you need anything pertaining to your stay visit the Saba Tourist Bureau in Windwardside across from Bizzy B’s. The staff there are happy to answer any questions you may have.
It’s a good idea to work with the Tourist Bureau to arrange a taxi to pick you up at the airport. They don’t wait outside like they do in bigger cities.
Bring a sweater or light fleece, evenings can be chilly.
Wifi is sketchy and expensive.
If you don’t have scuba equipment, the dive shops will rent you the whole shebang. Beginners are welcome.
- Don’t forget plenty of water. You’ll definitely sweat and why risk becoming dehydrated.
- Don’t think you can walk the trails in flip flops, you’ll regret it. Hiking boots or shoes are a must. The terrain is uneven, there are roots everywhere, and slippery spots.
- If you explore the lava flows, wear long pants. The volcanic rock is like sandpaper with plenty of sharp edges.
On the way back to St. Maarten, ask the pilot if he’ll take a quick spin around the island, might do it. The detour takes five-minutes and the aerial perspective is wonderful. Sit on the righthand side for the best view.
A Brief Breakdown of the Four Villages
(This list is in order of appearance along The Road from one side to the other.)
Hell’s Gate (Also called Zion’s Hill) is where you’ll find the airport.
Windwardside is the tourism center with a variety of accommodations, restaurants, bars and such as well as ground zero for most of the outfitters on the island.
St. John is a residential area and home to the school.
The Bottom is Saba’s capital. Most of the government and service offices are located here. There are a couple of historical sites as well.
The harbor is the last stop on The Road and below The Bottom. Residents joke that it’s the only place you have to go up to get to The bottom.
During my trip I was a guest of Saba Tourism but the words and sentiment are my own.